50. Daft Punk, “Harder Better Faster Stronger” (Discovery, 2001)
Indie kids learn to dance blah blah blah. If I’d ever foreseen that Daft Punk’s totally euphoric Discovery would ever be drafted into some kind of stupid trajectory about how the head-nod, arms-crossed, irony-laden crowd of the early ’00s learned to dance and embrace pure joy and YOUTH VITALITY LOVE SEX, I probably never would’ve listened to it. I don’t know when this became true, but at some point dancing became an ideological issue for a certain kind of under-30 cohort, the idea being that anyone who says they don’t like to dance is either lying or afraid to embrace their true visceral impulses. You can like dance music without wanting to dance, and I don’t care what Lady Gaga has to say on the subject. As the Rev. Jesse Jackson once said when speaking at my high school, “Some Negroes ain’t got no rhythm.” Let me substitute the most obviously contentious word in there: Some of us can’t dance, and we’d appreciate it if you stopped telling us to stop being embarrassed and just be joyous. Also, on Halloween we don’t feel like making costumes. Can we enjoy our drinks in peace now?
Anyway. Discovery is a pretty much universally beloved album for anyone who’s heard it; this song is generally a consensus highlight, and I love it very much. There’s very little I can do to describe its sonic qualities freshly: There’s AutoTune distortion years before it was cool (everyone assumed it was vocoder, including me), and super-badass synth breakdowns, and it’s all unstoppably propulsive. So I’ll just explain how it works on me. For some reason, my freshman year of college I was saddled with a miserable crew of randomly assigned roommates: The psychopath who eventually tore a door off its hinges and was banned from housing, the stoners who stayed up ’til 5 am on shrooms and talked about the intelligence of dolphins, the rabidly Jewish guy who berated me for not being Jewish enough and practiced banjo in the small room’s confines to play along with his favorite jam-band/Oasis riffs and giggled at his own farts. (A banjo, for those of you who’ve never gotten up close, is absurdly loud.) In the middle of this, I got into one of those ill-advised attempted bonding sessions, and somehow I put Discovery on and the usual idiot grin I get listening to it beamed across my face. “I’ve never seen you so happy,” said one of the roomies, which is tribute to a) how oblivious they were to the misery they were inflicting on me and b) the power of the album to inflict joy on you when you’re in the middle of an atrocious year. All I have to do is head-nod and grin; the other kids can dance.
49. Mellow, “In The Meantime” (Perfect Colors, 2004)
Mellow’s name was a lie: Perfect Colors, their second (and seemingly final) album proper, is breathlessly sarcastic. I’m mostly including this song to point people toward an album that never saw a proper US release. They could do wistful gorgeousness as well as the next band (“Drifting Out Of Sight” is a textbook perfect pastoral), but “In The Meantime” speaks better to what made them distinctive: Guys who learned English only to mock more people in a language they’d understand; Pink Floyd guitar solos that undercut the snide lyrics with incongruous grandiosity; a generally flawless command of pop songwriting semiotics in the service of evil. “In The Meantime” isn’t about much aside from songwriters mocking themselves and how well they can write everything without anyone caring (“I wrote a song for Scientology”), yet it’s got maybe the most sardonically pompous final chorus of any song on this list. This is one of those great albums I’m frustrated never caught on.
48. The Shins, “Saint Simon” (Chutes Too Narrow, 2003)
I underestimated Chutes Too Narrow when it came out, on the assumption that 10-song sets of immaculate, crisply-done pop songs were a dime a dozen; in retrospect, The Shins might’ve been the last band of their kind to break through with real street cred before the great wave of Sonic Youth/dance fetishization broke through. I must’ve listened to this for a good half-year with little pause, and the whole time I felt guilty: It just seemed too easy, which in retrospect was obviously an illusion. I’m going with “Saint Simon” because it’s the prettiest, most ornate thing they ever did, a respite with string quartet that uses strings as counterpoint rather than doubling the melodic line (something that’s an all-too-common temptation for lazy arrangers). Still, this is an album; for a guy who’s shy about making his lyrics anything less than breathtakingly opaque, James Mercer can be very, very funny (“Just a glimpse of an ankle and I react like it’s 1805,” from “Turn A Square,” cracks me up every time). I didn’t (and don’t) like their first album, which swam in unnecessary reverb and obfuscation. Here, The Shins had the courage to rely solely upon their songs, record one of the dryest albums of the decade, and win.
47. The Fiery Furnaces, “Here Comes The Summer” (Here Comes The Summer 12” single b-side, but just get EP, 2005)
Choosing a song this straightforward and recognizable—it has a chorus and everything—seems like a cop-out when it comes to The Fiery Furnaces, one of the few bands I like whose preferred song-length is 10 minutes. Both Blueberry Boat and Bitter Tea are, if not masterpieces, dense and rewarding immersion tanks. In 2004, in transition between my hometown of Austin and coming to New York City for NYU, the concept of taking only four hours to change cities freaked me out; it seemed too abrupt. So I took Amtrak from Austin to NYC, which took 2-1/2 days. This was moronic, exhausting, sweaty and a little scary (the toothless Amish kept grinning at me). Blueberry Boat was my companion from Austin to Fort Worth, and arguably there’s no more perfect way to listen to it than with perfect concentration while staring at miles of unchanging landscape. Those times are harder to come by as life gets busier (especially when I realized I’d lost a little hearing to my headphones and had to give them up). So: Is it a cop-out for me to choose one of the Friedberger siblings’ more compact moments? Probably, yet it does have a lot of things that make them great: a striking treble-only range (The Fiery Furnaces have a recording sound even more identifiable than how they write songs) bright enough to be “pop” without really sounding like any conventional definition of the word, warbly guitar solos flirting with glam territory. It’s also fresh, invigorating, and one of their rare songs that could be deemed “lovable.”
46. The Killers, “Mr. Brightside” (Hot Fuss, 2004)
I don’t really understand why Morrissey is so obsessed with these guys, unless he just finds Brandon Flowers’s ambiguous (non?)-gayness relatable, and I certainly don’t really understand why they’re huge, or why anyone thought they could be The Next Great American Band; most of the singles I’ve heard suck. But everyone likes this song; the chord progression on the chorus is obscenely good, seemingly far better than they deserve, and the stomach-sick-jealousy should be instantly relatable to any male who was once 17. You know what this sounds like, so I won’t bother.
45. The xx, “Shelter” (xx, 2009)
This is the only band on this list that is a new band debuting in 2009; I needed one of those at least, and it is my casual impression that these kids (all of whom are 20, thereby nearly four years younger than me, which makes me insanely jealous of their talent) have “it.” Point of fact, their debut album may be the most accomplished, fully-formed, unimprovable debut since The Strokes’s Is This It. They really are that good, melding the inexplicable sexiness of Phase I Portishead with the sparse acoustics and economy of Young Marble Giants. “Shelter” is a girlfriend’s unapologetic apology: “Maybe I had done something that was wrong / Can I make it better with the lights turned off?” Yeah, you probably can. All we have here is a few sets of keyboard thirds, tribal drums and a nagging insistence on the importance of negative sonic space. These guys are The Future.
44. The Dandy Warhols, “Bohemian Like You” (Thirteen Tales From Urban Bohemia, 2000)
I don’t recall anyone having particularly strong feelings about The Dandy Warhols before 2004’s DiG!—the definitive indie rock doc, the time capsule that reminds me of who I went to high school with more than anything. After that movie, though, everyone who cared about such matters hated The Dandy Warhols: Inauthentic poseurs, label-whores using their scuzzy faux-VU cred to market watered-down shoegaze to kids too dumb to know better, leeches for commerce, etc. All of which is stupid (for starters, The Brian Jonestown Massacre, the Warhols’s foil in the film, were/are an atrocious band), but spoke to something: The Dandy Warhols knew the people who hated them, and they were hated because they could spoof their enemies better than anyone. I grew up in Austin, and trust me: “Bohemian Like You” is spot on. Our protagonist is working at a vegan restaurant and offers free food as a chat-up line; the lady of his ambitions has an ex crashing on her couch who has to deal with the new boyfriend. (A crusty, perennial joke that works for any college town: “What do you call a musician who breaks up with his girlfriend? Homeless.”) And it’s catchy enough to be in a commercial (which it was, which is why the Warhols broke through in the first place), which is obviously a problem. Call them whores—they are; protest they’re not that talented (with the exception of Welcome To The Monkey House, they really don’t have an album that works start to finish for me). Go ahead. But if you know what they’re talking about at all, you know this song is true.
43. TV On the Radio, “Family Tree” (Dear Science, 2008)
In the annoying Medicine For Melancholy, a (no other way to put it) drunk black hipster starts ranting about how there’s no black people on the music scene; all we have is half of TV On the Radio. Aside from me being so bored that I spent the rest of the movie trying to come up with other examples (have we forgotten Cody ChesnuTT so soon? Or the now-defunct Test Icicles?), I suppose this is true. This would not, however, be obvious on a blind listen to their music: Indeed, on their first two albums, TV On the Radio seemed to go out of their way to sound like anyone, which meant they were tuneless and not a whole lot of fun. They’ve become more comfortable with the possibility of pleasure over time and giving it to you without a preliminary ascetic delay of two minutes. “Family Tree,” for me, is their most immediate song: Dave Sitek—like Flaming Lips/Mercury Rev producer Dave Fridmann—has figured out how to make his band sound huge without actually getting an orchestra. “Family Tree”’s simple echoing piano guts me every time; the last half’s shift into dynamic territory is just icing. The lyrics could probably be about several things—interracial romance, forbidden love, a lynching, a history of abusive families. Either way, it sounds grave and elegiac. And it’s unfortunate I have to think about that movie every time I listen to it.
42. The White Stripes, “Fell In Love with a Girl” (White Blood Cells, 2001)
The first White Stripes song I ever heard was De Stijl’s “A Boy’s Best Friend”—one of Jack White’s best straightforward blues pastiches and tensely coiled in its own right, but decidedly misleading. It was a random Napster download based on a positive A.V. Club review, which was pretty much my only guide back then; I hadn’t heard of Pitchfork. So I wasn’t entirely unprepared when The White Stripes suddenly went mainstream and blew up MTV: I thought this was what hyped underground bands did after a couple of albums, because the Nirvana narrative was still the default in my head. (Obviously, this changed.) The Lego-motion video was awesome, and their MTV Video Music Awards performance—with hordes of “spontaneous” dancers crashing the floor in front of them—was hugely enjoyable. I didn’t really understand why the song blew up (still don’t), but given hit-making power, The White Stripes proceeded to foist some of the weirdest singles ever heard on ’00s alt-rock radio, with White gracing the world with the progressively stranger “Seven Nation Army,” “Blue Orchid” and (two-and-a-half organ/guitar solos’ worth or whatever that was) “Icky Thump.” For this I thank White: Despite the occasional tedium of the actual albums, he’s an electric presence. I’ll never quite process the White Stripes show I saw in 2003, where White appeared to be covered with pallor-white make-up, making the whole thing seem like some kind of gothic revival tent. This may not be their best song, but it is the best of their pure, undisciplined adrenaline shots (something they actually didn’t do as often as their reputation suggested).
41. Wilco, “Poor Places” (Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, 2002)
This is really half a song: This and “Reservations” are the complementary closing diptych on 2002’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, the groundbreaking et. al that transformed a mildly popular NPR-alt-country band into an indie sensation. Foxtrot was primarily embraced for its narrative: Conservative label blanches in the wake of artistic boldness, band disseminates album via online leak, ends up winning everyone over and selling more than ever before. The strategy was a precursor of what was to come technologically later in the decade, and noted avant-garde tweaker Jim O’Rourke was, given the band’s history, a bold choice. Nonetheless, Tweedy was 35 by the time the album was officially released and Wilco was no one’s revolutionary vanguard, something that became clear very fast. Tweedy’s a huge music nerd who’s had The Fiery Furnaces open for Wilco and loves to talk about Deerhoof, but his own music is essentially conservative (Tweedy’s approach suggests awareness but deliberate non-use of progressive developments in music. Together, “Poor Places” and “Reservations” encapsulate a lot of what Wilco did well on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, an album that—after all the hype and overplaying (in my room, anyway)—is still capable of being heartbreaking at the right moment. The narratives of both songs are self-serving and solipsistic: Tweedy’s gotten in a fight and lost (“My jaw’s been broken / My bandage is pulled too tight”), he’s thinking about his dad (father issues!), his “fangs have been pulled” and—ergo—“I really wanna see you tonight.” He’s finally realized he’s a dick! Get back with him! But the song works—Tweedy’s sincerity may not validate him the way he thinks it does if it’s just lyrics, but as an expression of a devastated state of mind it’s wrenching. Back to back with “Reservations”—“How can I convince you that it’s me I don’t like”—it’s overwhelming, the culmination of an album that really did succinctly compact despair and resignation with a generous sprinkling of radio noise. It still really doesn’t sound like anything else.
Editor’s Note: Click here to read the previous installment of this feature.
Review: That Was Something Lays Bare the Ephemeral Desires of a Lost Youth
By the end, the lesson we’ve learned is that the stories we tell ourselves about the past have always been revised from a previous draft.
Film and theater critic Dan Callahan’s witty debut novel, That Was Something, chronicles the young adulthood of Bobby Quinn, a gay Midwestern transplant who’s just moved from Chicago to Manhattan to attend New York University. Retrospectively, it examines his obsession with the two leading players in the story of his early days in the city in the late 1990s: the enigmatic Ben Morrissey, an irresistible fellow student destined for fame in the art world, and the mysterious Monika Lilac, a dramatic and performative slightly older cinephile whose devotion to silent films is emblematic of her entire character. “I was looking for the keys to the kingdom, and I found them or thought I did in Manhattan screening rooms, in the half-light and the welcoming dark,” Bobby declares to the reader in the novel’s opening, and so begins a provocative—and conspicuously wine-drenched—narrative that serves both as a paean to a bygone era and an emphatic testimony about how we never really leave behind the people, experiences, and places that shape us into who we are in the present.
For a fleeting period of time, the lives of these three characters become intertwined and united by their shared passion for the cinema—and for each other. While Ben and Monika enter into a tumultuous romance, Bobby watches from the sidelines as he privately explores his own sexuality, mostly in dalliances with anonymous older men who he meets at bars in Chelsea, having learned to offer himself up “as a kind of virgin sacrifice.” Throughout, Callahan’s frank descriptions of Bobby’s early sexual experiences are a welcome departure from metaphor, while still seeming almost mythical in the way that Bobby recalls them, just like how all of the liminal moments in our lives—the moments in which we cross a threshold and permanently abandon whoever we had been before—seem to mark our personal histories almost like the transitions between the disparate chapters of a novel.
Bobby has been deeply in love with Ben ever since the two met for the first time in a common area of their shared dormitory at NYU, and Ben keeps Bobby only barely at arm’s length—sexually and otherwise—throughout the dazzling weeks, months, and even years of their relationship as young men. He constantly reminds Bobby that they would probably be lovers if only Ben were gay, which is obviously music to Bobby’s ears, fueling many of his private fantasies. And Bobby is also the prized subject of Ben’s budding photography career, often photographed in the nude, and both the photographs themselves and the act of bringing them into the world blur lines of sexuality and masculinity as the friendship between the two young men deepens and becomes increasingly complex.
Callahan cocoons his characters in what feels like a time capsule, capturing them at their most beautiful and glamorous and then presenting them to us as if on a stage—or on a screen, which the characters in the novel would agree is even more intimate, even more akin to a grab at immortality. Other characters drift in and out of the central narrative in the same way that one-night stands and people we’ve met only at dimly lit parties can sometimes seem blurry and indistinct when we try to recollect them later, but the love story that Bobby is most interested in sharing with the reader is that of a queer young man’s obsession with his larger than life friends during a time when everything for him was larger than life.
Callahan’s previous book, The Art of American Screen Acting: 1912-1960, demonstrates the author’s talent for dissecting the subtlety and nuance of the many nonverbal ways in which the icons of the screen communicate with one another, and here too in That Was Something is close attention paid to the power of performance. The novel is also a story about falling in love with a city, even in retrospect—and even after the version of the city that you originally knew is gone forever. And in the familiar yet always poignant way in which the sights and sounds of a lost New York typically wriggle their way into a novel like this one, the city is at first a backdrop before it inevitably becomes a character.
Monika Lilac hosts a silent film-themed party at her house during which the guests have been cleverly instructed to pantomime their communication to one another rather than speak out loud, and to write out any absolutely necessary dialogue on handmade title cards. At the end of the party, the various revelers—wearing only their underwear, at Monika’s command—all together “streamed out into the night and ran like crazy” through New York City streets while being pummeled from above by heavy rain, not caring at all who was watching. And Bobby, from the vantage point of years in the future, recalls:
In any other place, we might have been harassed, arrested, or the object of wide-eyed stares. Not in Manhattan. And that has its flip side, too. Because Manhattan will let you do whatever you like, at any time of the day or night, but it won’t ever pay attention to you. You can be world famous, and Manhattan still basically doesn’t care, most of the time. And if you aren’t world famous, Manhattan regards you at several ice-slicked levels below indifference. And sometimes, on less wonderful days and nights, some attention might be welcome.
In a blurb on the novel’s back cover, Wayne Koestenbaum describes That Was Something as “The Great Gatsby on poppers,” and there’s definitely something of Nick Carraway in the voice of Bobby Quinn as he looks back at his disappearing New York and the people who populated it, the ghost of a city that disappeared forever the moment he looked away. Callahan’s novel enters the canon of the queer roman a clef—as well as the literary New York novel—by mixing vibrantly realized memories of a fleeting youth, ruminations on the origins of desire, and a deeply felt nostalgia for the way things once were into a cocktail that tastes exactly like growing up and growing older in the same city in which you were once young. And the hangover after a night spent knocking them back in the dim light of a Manhattan dive, as anyone who still occasionally haunts the haunts of his youth can tell you, is always brutal.
Bobby is now many years older as he narrates That Was Something, his desires tempered or at least contained by realistic expectations of how and in what ways they might be satisfied, and his relationships with Ben (now famous) and Monika (now vanished) are either nonexistent or else greatly demoted from the centrality that they had once firmly occupied in the narrative of his life. But there’s still urgency in what Bobby is telling the reader. In the novel’s brilliant final pages, we come to realize that the act of looking back at our younger selves is both masturbatory and transitory, mostly an exercise in framing. Bobby has been explaining how age has made him wistful about his moment in the sun, but then he’s suddenly remembering a fantasy that he once enacted alone one afternoon in his dorm room, back when he was still a virgin—and back when all of his fantasies were about Ben Morrissey:
I entered another place with my mind. It felt like what stepping into the past would feel like now, maybe. It was forbidden, and I was getting away with it. … Looked at from the outside and with unsympathetic eyes, it would be pitiful and grotesque, maybe even laughable. So why am I still so certain that something else occurred?
The lesson we’ve learned by the end of That Was Something is that the stories we tell ourselves about the past have always been revised from a previous draft. Just think of all that film that ends up on the cutting room floor during the editing process, to be forgotten and swept away with the garbage after the best take has been safely delivered. Only with the benefit of hindsight can we wipe away the shame and growing pains of early stabs at love and failed expressions of desire and instead render the past beautifully, artfully, just as the cinematic film frame limits our perspective so that all we can see is what the director has meticulously manufactured specifically for us. The equipment that made the image possible in the first place has been painstakingly concealed, so that all we notice—all we remember—is whatever ends up remaining beneath the carefully arranged spotlight.
Sometimes a great novel, like a great film, can at once transform and transport us, offering a glimpse into a lost world made all the more beautiful by the distance it asks us to travel into our hearts and minds. At the end of one of the last film screenings that Bobby attends in the company of Monika Lilac, she says wistfully to him, “You know, you’re downhearted, and you think, ‘What’s the use?’ and then you see a film like that and it speaks to you and suddenly you’re back in business again!” And the film they’ve been watching, she has just whispered to Bobby as the credits rolled in the emptying theater, was the story of her life.
Dan Callahan’s That Was Something is now available from Squares & Rebels.
Blu-ray Review: Peppermint Soda Gets 2K Restoration from Cohen Media Group
Diane Kurys’s poignant debut powerfully evokes the bittersweet feelings of leaving behind the halcyon days of one’s youth.
Diane Kurys’s Peppermint Soda is like flipping through a young girl’s diary, capturing as it does snippets of the small-scale tragedies, amusing hijinks, and quotidian details that define the lives of two Parisian teenage sisters over the course of their 1963-to-‘64 school year. Through a delicate balancing of comedic and dramatic tones, Kurys’s debut film taps into the emotional insecurities and social turmoil that accompany the awkward biological developments of adolescence with a disarming sweetness and subtlety, lending even small moments a poignancy that shuns overt displays of sentimentality or nostalgia. As evidenced by the opening title card, in which Kurys dedicates the film to her sister “who has still hasn’t returned my orange sweater,” Peppermint Soda’s authenticity arises from its specificity, both in its characters’ tumultuous inner lives and the detailed rendering of their friends and teachers, as well as the classrooms within which they passed their days.
Structured as a series of loosely connected vignettes, the film bounces between the introverted 13-year-old Anne (Eléonore Klarwein) and her outgoing, popular 15-year-old sister, Frédérique (Odile Michel), who both attend the same strict, bourgeois private school. While Anne’s concerns often verge on the petty, be it her frustration at her mother (Anouk Ferjac) refusing to buy her pantyhose or at her sister for preventing her from tagging along to social gatherings, Kurys depicts Anne with a uniquely compassionate eye, mining light humor out of such situations while remaining keenly aware of the almost insurmountable peer pressures and image-consciousness that are the driving forces behind most irrational teenage behavior.
Some scenes, such as the one where Anne’s art teacher ruthlessly mocks her drawing in front of the class, are representative of the emotionally abusive or neglectful relationship between Anne and many of the adults in her life, and throughout, Kurys understands that it’s how Anne is seen by her classmates that most dramatically affects her state of mind. In the heightened emotional state of teenage years, the sting of simply not having a pair of pantyhose can be more painful than a teacher’s overbearing maliciousness. But Peppermint Soda isn’t all doom and gloom, as the bitter disappointments of youth are counterbalanced with a number of droll passages of Anne gossiping and goofing off with her friends. Particularly amusing is a conversation where Anne’s friend confidently, yet with wild inaccuracies, describes sex, eventually guessing that boy’s hard-ons can grow to around six feet long.
In Peppermint Soda’s latter half, Kurys seamlessly shifts her focus toward Frédérique, broadening the film’s scope as current events begin to shape the elder sister’s political consciousness. Everything from John F. Kennedy’s assassination to a classmate’s terrifying firsthand account of the police’s violent overreaction to a student protest against the Algerian War lead Frédérique to slowly awaken to the complexities of the world around her. But even as Frédérique finds herself becoming quite the activist, handing out peace pins and organizing secret meetings in school—and much to the chagrin of her mother and her sexist, conservative teacher—she’s still prone to fits of emotional immaturity when it comes to her boyfriend.
It’s through these frequent juxtapositions of micro and macro concerns, when the inescapable solipsism of childhood runs head-on into the immovable hurdles and responsibilities of adulthood, that Peppermint Soda most powerfully evokes the bittersweet feelings of leaving behind the halcyon days of one’s youth. Yet the sly sense of whimsy that Kurys instills in her deeply personal recollections acts as a comforting reminder of the humor tucked away in even our darkest childhood memories. Sometimes it just takes a decade or two to actually find it.
Peppermint Soda is now available on Blu-ray and DVD from Cohen Media Group.
Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Sound Editing
If it were biologically possible to do so, both Ed and I would happily switch places with A Quiet Place’s Emily Blunt.
If it were biologically possible to do so, both Ed and I would happily switch places with A Quiet Place’s Emily Blunt, because we’d much rather give birth in a tub while surrounded by murderous blind creatures than have to once again write our predictions for the sound categories. As adamant as we’ve been that the Academy owes it to the nominees to air every category, which they agreed to after an extended “just kidding,” it might have given us pause had the sound categories been among the four demoted by Oscar. But no, we must now endure our annual bout of penance, aware of the fact that actually knowing what the difference is between sound editing and sound mixing is almost a liability. In other words, we’ve talked ourselves out of correct guesses too many times, doubled down on the same movie taking both categories to hedge our bets too many times, and watched as the two categories split in the opposite way we expected too many times. So, as in A Quiet Place, the less said, the better. And while that film’s soundscapes are as unique and noisy as this category seems to prefer, First Man’s real-word gravitas and cacophonous Agena spin sequence should prevail.
Will Win: First Man
Could Win: A Quiet Place
Should Win: First Man